Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

After writing their memoir, many people stop at the threshold, worried what they might encounter in the world of public storytelling. In this section, I answer Frequently Asked Questions about the fears that block memoir writers before their work reaches the world.

What if I’m too shy to sell my book?

If you feel shy about revealing your life, try to break the task down into small, achievable steps. In my experience, the safest first audience are your fellow aspiring writers who may share some of your anxieties and hopes. By joining a critique group, you can audition your material and get feedback. Try a few more critique groups and after a while you’ll feel more confident. A good next step is a blog. This free self-publishing tool allows you to share your life with one tiny corner of the vast universe of the public. As your blog grows, hopefully your confidence will too. Eventually sharing your story will feel more natural.

Will going public place me in danger?

No one can guarantee safety, and so, all of us must steer between the extremes of paralyzing fear and bold action. To keep fear in its rightful place, think of it as an advisor, and not a master.

Will I be sued or hated?

It’s relatively easy for someone to sue you, and even if their legal grounds are frivolous, you must defend yourself. As a result, you may imagine potential law suits lurking on every page. How do memoir writers make peace with this possibility? The first line of defense is to realize that someone will need to go to a lot of trouble and expense to sue you, so probably mere annoyance will not be enough to provoke this sort of response.

Some writers say that the very people who they thought would hate the book were flattered to see themselves in print. Some, like Linda Wisniewski say it’s her story and other people are entitled to their reaction. Others, like Sue William Silverman, wait until their abuser has passed. She was afraid her relatives would hate her for outing her father’s abuse, but instead they reached out to her and empathized, wishing they could somehow turn the clock back to those years and protect her. In, “Crazy Love,” Leslie Morgan Steiner’s first husband was one of the most abusive men I have seen in nonfiction. She apparently came to some sort of agreement with him before the book went to press. Here are a few other ways writers minimize the risk of incurring wrath:

  • By including more than one point of view you can imply that your own observations are your subjective reality, and others may differ.
  • Skip or only hint at the most incriminating observations.
  • Alter facts to obscure the person’s identity.
  • Write fiction.

Must I reveal every aspect of my life?

Writing a memoir initially seems like it may expose you to ridicule. Once you actually reveal secrets, you may be surprised to discover that your confessions make you appear to be a deeper, more authentic character. No longer under pressure to keep secrets, you trade in privacy for self-confidence. “I am who I am, and did what I did.” By telling your secrets, you become a more open and energetic contributor to your culture.

Of course, there may be parts of your life you still prefer to keep to yourself. You may want to protect your family and friends, or you may still be processing part of yourself that is not yet ready for public scrutiny. As you experiment in your drafts and critique groups, you gain discernment about which parts of yourself to reveal and which to keep private.

What if my sister or brother disagrees?

Even in casual situations, people have different recollections of the same event. Sometimes you can agree to disagree. Other times, the disagreement escalates, loaded with surprising tension, and a struggle for ownership of the past.

Some memoir writers weave disagreements right into their story. For example, “The Kids are all right,” by Diana Welch, “Night of the Gun,” by David Carr, “Mistress’s Daughter,” by A.M. Homes, and “My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour.

If appropriate, discuss your memories with those who were involved, seeking to understand their point of view. Foster Winans, in an early draft of his memoir “Trading Secrets” painted a dark, damaging portrait of his mother. She read the draft, and they talked for hours, turning the pain into an opportunity for understanding. The published version took this new, deeper appreciation into account.

In the end, this is your story and you have the right to tell it. In fact, gaining confidence and ‘ownership” of your own life story is one of the greatest benefits of writing it.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.